In the spring of 1970 I was the only quarterback at the spring workouts and again when training camp opened. The NFL Players Association was threatening to strike, so the owners barred the veterans from camp. For two weeks I got all the work and I took advantage of it.
John Madden would stand behind me when I dropped into the pocket during all the passing drills and scrimmages. That is the only way to tell which receiver is open from the quarterback’s point of view.
“Ken, I don’t know how you spot the open receivers and get the ball to them so fast,” John told me.”You’re hitting people I can’t even find looking over your shoulder. You’re getting the receiver the ball when he’s being pinched by two defenders and you’re hitting guys on the dead run when they’re shoulder to shoulder with a cornerback. You’ve got the touch.”
I had always been blessed with the ability to read defenses quickly and release the ball quickly. I don’t think I had any special vision, but I did have a special feel for what was going on in front of me. My confidence was definitely back.
Madden warned me that I couldn’t always trust the receiver who comes back to the huddle and says he was open on the last play. He demonstrated this when we viewed films of a scrimmage. Just as I was about to release the ball on film, John would stop the projector and ask, “Okay, who’s the open man on this play?” A receiver would say he was open, then John would roll the film again. We’d see that the man had come open only after his coverage had reacted away from him.
During the 1970 season, I threw exactly seven passes. If starting quarterback Daryle Lamonica got hurt or was ineffective, George Blanda played. Brilliantly, at age forty-three. In one five-week stretch, Blanda won four games, tied another, and earned himself AFC Player of the Year honors. In a 7-7 tie with the Steelers, Lamonica went down, so George went in and threw three touchdown passes and we won the game 31-14. The next week, trailing the Chiefs, 17-14, George kicked a forty-eight yard field goal to tie the game as time ran out. The next week he kicked a fifty-two yard field goal with three seconds on the clock to beat Cleveland, 23-20. Then he beat the Broncos with a twenty-yard touchdown pass with less than three minutes left to play. There were four seconds remaining in the game against the Chargers when George kicked a sixteen-yard field goal for the victory.
I learned a lot from Professor Blanda. We would stand together on the sidelines and analyze the offense when Daryle was in. I’d watch Daryle’s attack and tell George what I would’ve done. Then he would advise me, tell me whether he agreed with my plan or not and why. He kept pointing out that it was just as important knowing what not to do as knowing what to do. His message was: Don’t worry about interceptions and don’t be conservative, but never force a pass. Instead, take the hit and get up to throw again. Forced passes led to foolish interceptions. Blanda was a big, big factor in my development as a pro.
In over twenty years of pro football, he’d seen hundreds of players come and go, he was still winning games with his arm and foot and making a great living.
Anything George Blanda wanted to do he could do well. The card games we played-gin, crazy eights, any kind of poker—George almost never lost. He was a real good pool shooter who could just make that cue ball talk. After he’d sink a shot, the cue ball would roll around the table and line up in perfect position for his next shot. If you challenged him in basketball, bowling, or golf, George would always beat you.
He asked me to pay gin with him on our plane trips. I knew he’d beaten everybody he’d played and that he just wanted some new competition. George also liked me an I enjoyed his company, his intensity. I played everything to win, too. I didn’t expect to have much success against him, but I thought it would be fun to watch him work. Hell, it was always fun to watch George’s mind in action on the football field, the way he called a play here to set up a big gain later, the way he waited to the last second for the wide receiver to clear out the middle, then hit the tight end underneath.
George played gin the way you should, counting the cards, knowing exactly what was still available to draw, reading your hand and knowing what you likely needed to fill. He’d change his hand completely in mid-game. He had played a lot of gin on a lot of airplanes, on prop planes, fan jets, and now jets. And he beat me on trip after trip through the season.
But during our gin marathon on the last road trip of 1970, a six hour flight to New York, I caught all the right cards. We played for a penny a point, and there wasn’t much money involved, about $5. But I won all the way cross-country. When we landed, George stood up, angrily threw his cards down, and walked away. He wouldn’t speak to me the rest of the trip or sit with me on the plane ride home. That’s the kind of competitor he was. Tough as leather.
Probably our meanest defender in 1970 was strong safety George Atkinson, who was downright surly with tight ends. They usually outweighed him by fifty pounds, but the 170 pound George applied a lot of hurt on them. He liked to hit receivers in the head from the blindside with a blow he called “the Hook,” catching them in the crook of his right arm and ringing their bell. When I met George in Al’s, I told him I liked his “Flipper” better. A receiver would go up high for a pass and George would dive at his ankles and flip him so that he landed on his head.
One reason the Raider defense always featured a gang of punishing, intimidating players was those were the kind of individuals Al Davis looked for, the kind of guys who helped you win ball games. Another reason Raider defenders were so aggressive is they tended to take speed. By the handful.
Up until there was reported drug abuse on the San Diego Chargers in the early seventies and the league tried to cut back on the use of amphetamines, there was always a big jar of them in the Raider dressing room. Players who wanted some extra energy could just dip in. I understand this was the situation on every pro football, baseball, and basketball team then.
The big Raiders jar contained gray-colored amphetamine capsules that the players called “rat turds.” I had taken some speed in college, I’d feel like I was so wired with energy that I could go forever without sleep and do anything. As I was a hyper, high-energy guy anyway, I had to be careful with speed. As a quarterback, I had to be as clearheaded as possible because there were so many things to remember, so many variables that came into play on each down, I had to think quickly but calmly, not with a mind that was racing.
I think what Madden liked best about me was that I stayed relaxed in games, refusing to get rattled, because that was my nature. John, on the other hand, would often go berserk on the sidelines. He would hoot and holler at officials, slobbering at the mouth, pulling at his hair, and waving his big splay-fingered hands all around. All the while his face would get pinker and pinker until we sometimes thought it would burst.
Getting close to all my teammates helped my quarterbacking. The best part of the game was the brotherhood, laughing and working together. It was my personality to be part of all that, to go out for drinks with the guys, jack around, chase and carouse with those who wanted to. I asked everyone about their injuries, their families, whatever they wanted to talk about.
For about two weeks after the loss in Pittsburgh, I’d wake up every morning and replay the game in my mind. I tried to figure out what I could have done differently that would have changed the outcome—my play calling, my passing. I was focused on myself because the only thinkg I could worry about was what I personally controlled.
I wanted to be remembered, and I knew the only way that was going to happen was to win the Super Bowl. I was obsessed with winning it all in 1976. The thing that tormented me most was coming so close four years in a row, and never even getting into the big game.
“We didn’t get in because we lost to great teams,” John Madden said when I called him. “Kenny, for two years Miami was a great team, so were the Raiders. The Dolphins beat us. Then Pittsburgh had great teams and beat us. In all four of those years, the teams that beat us were the world champs.”
“Well, we’re gonna win it all this year, John,”I said. At the end of the 1975 season, Al Davis had told a writer, “I never said this before, but I think Ken Stabler might be the most accurate passer in football today. Other than that, the only thing I can say about him is that he is a winner.”
He never said anything like that to me. Al didn’t say much of anything to the players. What he did say was rarely a compliment. No matter how well anyone performed, Al’s words always seemed designed to motivate us to do better. In one game I hit Freddy with a touchdown pass. Afterward Al said, “You know, Clifford was wide open on that play, nobody near him.”
I couldn’t see what difference it made if I’d had three other receivers wide open. You can only score one touchdown per pass. But Al liked to nudge you.
Sometimes now, though, I wished I hadn’t jumped out of Oakland. The difference between playing with the Raiders and playing with the Oilers was not so much in personnel. The main difference was that the Raider players began every season with the belief that they were going to win, and that come playoff time they would be there. The Raiders played to win. The Oilers played not to lose. And that, subconsciously, was the attitude I felt among my teammates. They just hadn’t been winning long enough to have that ingrained confidence that permeated the Raiders. Winning was expected, and that attitude all started at the top with Al Davis.